By SUSAN HAIGH
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ When Connecticut set up its public campaign financing system nearly a decade ago, it was supposed to ensure politicians were not beholden to special interests and corporations in the wake of a corruption scandal that ensnared its former governor. But the rules that have been held up as the gold standard of smart campaign finance reform haven’t stopped millions of dollars in outside cash from flooding into this year’s governor’s race.
Two political action committees registered with the IRS _ one supporting Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the other supporting Republican businessman Tom Foley _ have so far amassed a total of nearly $5.5 million in contributions to spend mostly on TV advertising, often condemning the other candidate. Other groups, including gun rights and gun control advocates, are also pumping money into the election.
This massive flow of “independent expenditures” into Connecticut, where Malloy and Foley each have about $6.5 million in public funds to spend, has prompted advocates to call for further changes to the 2005 state law enacted after the corruption scandal involving former Gov. John G. Rowland.
“The law is in good shape, but I think people need to keep abreast and keep the system up with the times,” said Nick Nyhart, president and CEO of Public Campaign, a national campaign finance reform advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. “Getting out in front of it is something that Connecticut has a chance to do.”
Nyhart still sees Connecticut’s system as a model for other states and his organization is conducting a “50-state assessment” to determine the chances of passing state laws to implement campaign financing programs like the one in Connecticut. Both Maine and Arizona have similar systems. There are also some counties and cities with public financing programs.
Connecticut’s program provides campaign grants to legislative and statewide office candidates. The PACS, however, have mostly been interested in the governor’s race, considered one of a handful of close match-ups in the country.
Two U.S. Supreme Court cases have prompted much of the influx of outside cash. The 2010 Citizens United decision essentially prohibited restricting independent political spending by corporations, unions and other groups. Then, a 2011 ruling determined it was unconstitutional to have “triggers” that automatically provide publicly funded candidates with extra money to match spending by outside groups. Such a provision had to be removed from Connecticut’s law.
Liz Kurantowicz, treasurer of the pro-Foley Grow Connecticut PAC, questioned the need for changes. She believes the 2005 law has done what it set out to do: remove the influence of lobbyists and state contractors on elected officials.
“The election and campaign process is wholly and completely separate,” Kurantowicz said. “The goal of independent expenditures is to influence voters, not elected officials, but whatever the rules are, we’ll follow them.”
While third party organizations are not allowed to coordinate their activities with the candidates, their spending is intended to help Foley and Malloy, giving them extra firepower on TV. Both men are participating in the public financing system and therefore are limited to spending only the $6.5 million they received in state grants _ money they qualified for after raising $250,000 in contributions of $100 or less.
“For better or worse, independent expenditures are allowed in unlimited amounts, and we can’t legally stop it,” said Joshua Foley, a spokesman and attorney for the Connecticut’s State Elections Enforcement Commission.
But Foley, who is not related to Tom Foley, said Connecticut could increase the amount of information groups must disclose about these independent expenditures so the public knows more about who is paying for the ads. State law already requires the PACs to inform the SEEC within 24 hours of its activities, including purchases of TV ads.
He said there are also loopholes in the state’s disclosure provisions that could be closed and the definitions of an “independent expenditure” and “coordination” could also be strengthened.
Nyhart said Connecticut might consider forbidding candidates from raising money for the outside groups that support them.
Malloy has hosted events for the Democratic Governors Association, which is helping to fund the Connecticut Forward Inc. PAC. Meanwhile, Foley has made fundraising appearances with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, chairman of the Republican Governors Association, which has contributed about $2.1 million to Grow Connecticut.
“We need to figure out what we need to do to make sure there’s not coordination between outside spenders and the campaigns,” said Cheri Quickmire, executive director of the accountability-minded Common Cause of Connecticut, adding there “really needs to be a bright line.”
Connecticut should also consider allowing candidates to raise more money in small contributions to receive additional matching funds needed to help match spending by outside groups, Nyhart said. If extra funds become available, the theory is people won’t feel the need to create PACs to help their candidates